Golden Gate Fields Mall Opponents Turn in November Vote Petitions

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 19, 2006

Foes of the proposed upscale mall planned for Albany’s Golden Gate Fields turned in nearly three times the signatures needed to qualify a November ballot initiative measure that would stop the proposal. 

Members of Citizens for the Albany Shoreline (CAS) presented a box containing 445 pages of petitions bearing 2,446 signatures to City Clerk Jacqueline Bucholz Tuesday noon. 

That figure is nearly three times the 950 signatures needed, or ten percent of the city’s registered voters. 

“We actually got 2,800 signatures, but we eliminated any that might raise any questions,” said Robert Cheasty, a former Albany mayor and CAS chair emeritus. 

“I will look after these like my first-born child,” quipped Bucholz, who said Contra Costa County officials have 30 working days to verify signatures. 

The Albany Shoreline Protection Initiative is designed to thwart the mall proposal by Canadian-owned Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of the track, and Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso’s Caruso Affiliated, Inc. 

Caruso, a prominent figure among Republican supporters and a major fund-raiser and donor for George W. Bush, has been applying his political skills in Albany, meeting with voters and donating to politically connected groups like the Albany Education Foundation. 

Asked for his firm’s response to the filing, Matt Middlebrook, who is coordinating events in Albany for Caruso, said the measure would “impose an unfunded $1.5 million mandate on the citizens of Albany” in the form of costs for the environmental impact report required by the initiative. 

“What services will they have to cut to pay for the EIR?” Middlebrook asked. “The city doesn’t have enough money to repair the storm water drain system and they are having to pass a parcel tax to extend library hours. We are confident the citizens of Albany will be able to see through and reject this blatant effort.” 

Costs for a similar report on the mall project would be paid for by the developers, he said. 

“I’m not surprised the developer is unhappy with the fact that the citizens don’t seem to support his plan,” said Cheasty. 

He said he expected EIR costs would be considerably less than Middlebrook’s estimate because the document would focus only on the plan created by the task force mandated in the initiative. 

Cheasty said costs could also be reduced by seeking funds from other sources. 

Just before they handed in the petitions, one CAS member, PCM Construction owner Peter Maass, attended a meeting of the developer and a group of local merchants. 

“There were 20 to 25 people, of whom four or five consisted of Caruso and his employees,” said Maass. “They’ve learned enough about Albany that they show up now with their ties off.” 

Caruso and Magna have teamed up to build malls at two of Magna’s tracks in California, Golden Gate Fields on the Bay and Santa Anita in the Los Angeles Basin. By the end of March, the firms had spent $3.3 million in promoting the two projects, splitting the costs evenly, according to filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. 

With track attendance down and horse racing in decline, Magna Entertainment has been selling off tracks and developing casinos—so-called “racinos”—at tracks in states where gambling is legal. 

Magna is believed to have been behind the telephone survey conducted a year-and-a-half ago asking if Albany voters would support a casino if its operators provided scholarships for all Albany and Berkeley High School graduates. 

Caruso is perhaps the country’s most successful mall developer, and his up-scale open-air projects, typically built with housing above the stores, have proven to be phenomenal success stories in Southern California.  

In Albany, the development team is up against local activists and environmentalists who have long viewed the waterfront as the site for an expansion of the Eastshore State Park. Wearing another of his many hats, Cheasty is also in Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP). 

The CAS initiative would bar development along a 600-foot-deep band along the shoreline, impose a moratorium on any shoreline development and create a public planning process that would end in a plan for the area that would be presented to the voters. 

Even if voters defeat the initiative, the developers would face at least one more public vote on their plans. 

Any development along the Albany shoreline must be approved by voters, a condition imposed by another initiative, Measure C, which voters passed in 1990. 

Caruso has deep pockets, and has shown a willingness to spend heavily on election campaigns involving his projects. He spent a reported $1.85 million on direct mail and other costs on an initiative campaign to build a mall in Glendale, which was contested by the owners of an existing mall.